At the very bottom
What does it mean to grow up on the margins of society? Christian Baron’s autobiographical novel gives us an idea.
By Eva Fritsch
“Papa” ... dad. The novel ends with this word – and you won’t really understand the meaning of the word, alongside “mama,” the first of all pet names, until you’ve read Ein Mann seiner Klasse (A Man of His Class). Here, “papa” isn’t a nurturing patriarch. In Christian Baron’s world, “papa” is a drunkard who abuses his wife and four children. The novel jumps between the past and the present as the adult Baron visits his hometown of Kaiserslautern to meet with his siblings and aunt. It’s no sentimental father-son story, but is an attempt at forgiveness.
Traumatic childhoodBaron takes his readers with him to 1990s Kaiserslautern, to an environment where the family has to go hungry not just once, and where beatings and humiliation by the father are the order of the day. “He grabbed me by the nape of my neck like a rabbit. Then he wound up and dashed me against the wall.”
In the family’s mouldy, narrow flat, neighbours ignore “the thrashings,” but the children have no choice but to listen in. “In 1994, my brother Benny and I, nine and eight years old … shared a bunk bed. Our parents slept right next to our room. The muffled sounds of mama’s head hitting the wall reached our ears. We never said a word about it.”
“Look the other way”Everyday life in the tiny flat is dismal. The mother suffers from depression, often staying in bed for days. But there are also tender moments like when the young woman sings Kelly Family songs and dances with her son or father plays Super Mario with his sons all night long. And still, the reader would often like to “look the other away” while reading as Baron painfully describes the everyday life of his childhood, which is anything but carefree and light hearted.
The mother is 32 years old when she dies of cancer. It is a traumatising experience for young Christian – and at the same time his “liberation” from the precarious conditions. He and his siblings move in with their Aunt Juli, one of their mother’s sisters. Another aunt offers Baron glimpses of the hidden middle-class world of theatre and literature. His aunts encourage him, and together with the initially resistant youth welfare office, he finds a way to escape his predetermined biography. Baron passes his A levels, goes to university. His three siblings, however, will not take this path; he remains the only academic in the family – a fate with which he sometimes struggles. “Did I think I was somehow better, even as a child? Did I look down on a family I was already planning to break out of before I was even able to take action?”
The scenes revealing how each of the four children suffers from their traumatising childhood in their own way are particularly poignant. As a child, Christian tends to have uncontrolled outbursts of anger and fantasies of violence. Laura, the second youngest, suffers from fears of loss and panic attacks as a little girl and can only be calmed if someone sings with her. Benny and Christian are shy at school. They’re afraid to say something out of line and duck in shame in the backseat of the blue Ford Taunus in which Uncle Ralf drives them through the city with loud music blaring.
My “best boys”Alongside the family’s television, which is running day and night, the unpredictable father is the novel’s linchpin. Even after the children have been living with their aunt and broken off all contact with him, he shows up now and then. He, who in carefree times calls his two sons my “best chums,” dies of multi-organ failure at the age of 43. The reader is repulsed by this father, the removal man who drowns his frustration with life – and his month’s wages – in the nearest pub. At the same time, Baron admires and adores his father as a child, his strong, manly tattooed arms, and his defiant pride.
The way that Baron links past experiences with the present, the way he tries to put his ambivalent feelings towards his father into words is often disturbing. The experiences he describes are too oppressive, the lives – and the underlying social system – are difficult to grasp. The novel’s strength lies primarily in the fact that the author doesn’t just present a personal story of suffering that may serve voyeuristic interests. Rather, he is concerned with the class in the book’s title, with societal circumstances, and the injustice inherent in them. That is why this book is so important. Because, as Baron himself writes about his father, it doesn’t excuse anything, but explains a lot.
ristian Baron: Ein Mann seiner Klasse
Berlin: Claassen, 2020. 288 S.